BUCKTOWN >> Christine Cataldo-Smith isn’t one to shy away from contact.
The pair of black-and-blue eyes on the Pennsbury junior forward tell enough of a tale to know she was just the right person for the occasion.
Deadlocked in a 1-1 match midway through the second half against Owen J. Roberts in the District 1 Class 4A semifinals, midfielder Riley Young sent a kick over the defense into the penalty area, a bit of a hopeful cross that turned into much more. With OJR keeper Samantha Hughes coming out to collect, she and Cataldo-Smith arrived at just the same time, collided and the ball fell to Cataldo-Smith for an open-net finish to send Pennsbury to a 2-1 victory for a spot in the District 1-4A championship game.
No. 3 Pennsbury (18-1-2) returns to the district championship – where it will face No. 9 Spring-Ford, a 1-0 winner over Neshaminy in the other semifinal – after two straight years of heartbreak in the quarterfinals and playbacks. Pennsbury, which won the district title in 2014, and Spring-Ford meet in the final Saturday, 5 p.m. at Great Valley.
“It’s a great feeling,” Cataldo-Smith said of the win. “I was a part of the team the previous two years and to fall short two years in a row was heartbreaking. We want to do everything we can for our seniors and the last two years we couldn’t finish it out. It’s very exciting to go all the way and have everyone putting their best out on the field every game.”
Pioneer Athletic Conference champion Owen J. Roberts (20-2) suffered just its second defeat of the season. The Wildcats, which already qualified for the state tournament through their quarterfinal win, will play a seeding game at home against No. 12 Neshaminy on Saturday.
Senior forward Mahogany Willis put OJR on top less than two minutes into the game, tying the Wildcats’ single-season scoring record with her 34th goal of the year.
The Wildcats were in the ascendancy for the first 13 minutes with Willis garnering two decent chances, but the Falcons found their way into the game from there and never looked back.
“We needed to see a couple players step up. Our defense made some really good adjustments,” Pennsbury coach Kaitlyn Battiste said. “We knew what they were capable of – Mahogany is a very talented player, she scored 90-plus times on other defenders so we knew they’d have their chances – but I thought my center back, Taylor (Muller), played a heck of a game. I could see it in her eyes that each time it was in her area she was just scooping everything up. The entire defense and whole team, they committed to working together and took advantage of their opportunities.”
Muller, center back partner Hope Drewes and outside back Ella Palmieri did well in slowing Willis the rest of the way while seniors Lizzy Kirk and Jenna Peters got the attack into the game.
“Since we went down early I knew we could come back from it,” Muller said. “I knew we had plenty of time. We just had to have all the girls come together and I think we’re all good about that.”
Peters got Pennsbury on the board late in the first half with a lofted volley from left to right over a pack of players after Drewes’ free kick was only half-cleared.
“(The coaches) were all going in with what our tough words were going to be at halftime if we were down and needing a wake up call,” Battiste said, “but fortunately we have the players who want it out there and they’ve been finding ways to figure it out together.”
The second half was entirely even with very few chances until Cataldo-Smith’s big moment.
The junior took an inadvertent elbow in practice from a teammate last Friday to get herself her black eyes, but she showed no signs of shying away in the game’s decisive moment.
“I’m not afraid to pressure a keeper. I’ve always done that my whole life,” she said. “When I saw there was some backspin I knew there was a chance for me to get it. I saw the keeper coming but I knew if I kept going I might get there and I was lucky enough to beat her to the ball by a split second.”
The OJR sideline felt Hughes had caught the ball before the contact and a foul should have been called, but their arguments were left wanting.
While OJR out-shot Pennsbury 8-4, the quality of their chances were limited with the team not connecting well in its passing most of the night and Pennsbury keeper Kerry Phillips (seven saves) went largely untested down the stretch.
“They picked up their work rate and ours fell down. It was just a poor game for us,” OJR coach Joe Margusity said. “We started to rely too much on the Hail Mary to Mahogany but when you’re in a district playoff game against a well-organized team that’s not going to work. You have to give Pennsbury credit. We never could get going.”
After just its second defeat of the year, Margusity is hoping to see a quick recovery from his squad.
“The thing I’m going to remind them is that hangover (last season) after they lost the PAC championship. It was there against Downingtown East (in the first round of districts),” Margusity said. “Well, you can’t have it at this stage of the year.”
Pennsbury meanwhile is in form at just the right time.
“I feel like last year we had individual parts in our style of play that was successful but we weren’t able to finish the ball. When it got serious we fell short,” Cataldo-Smith said. “Now this year everyone is working hard all across the field. Our defense steps up every game, our offense finds a way to put a goal away.”